April 5, 2013


Challenges for Pope Francis

It appears that nearly the whole world is enthralled with Pope Francis. People like his simplicity, his informality, his care for the poor, his thoughtfulness and his holiness.

This has been reflected in such things as his decision not to live in the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace; his daily Masses for Vatican employees in St. Martha’s Guesthouse, where he is living; his simpler clothing; his enthusiasm for greeting people; and any number of other things that indicate that this pope’s style is different from that of his predecessors.

But now that Holy Week and Easter are over, Pope Francis knows that he must face some serious challenges. It seems likely that he discussed those challenges with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI when they met on March 23 for several hours.

It’s no secret that one of Pope Francis’s priorities will likely be the reform of the Roman Curia, the administrative and judicial agencies that assist the pope. It consists of congregations, tribunals, councils, committees and offices whose only reason for existing is to carry out the will of the pope.

However, all those departments are filled by fallible human beings who must be managed pretty much the same way as large corporations or governments. Office politics is not unknown.

As Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin and George Weigel, among others, have pointed out (see the March 1 issue of The Criterion) the problem is compounded by where the Vatican is located—in the middle of Italy. Most of the employees are Italians, and many come from families that have long dominated the staffs of the agencies.

Pope Emeritus Benedict was probably the greatest theologian to occupy the Chair of Peter since St. Gregory the Great (590-604), but he was not trained to be a manager. Neither were Blessed John Paul II and other recent popes.

We know that Pope Emeritus Benedict was warned of mismanagement and corruption within the Roman Curia from the so-called “VatiLeaks” scandal last year, in which the pope’s butler was involved. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, now the Vatican’s nuncio to the United States but then the second-highest official in Vatican City State, warned the pope of “corruption and abuse of power long rooted in the various departments.”

We also know that Pope Emeritus Benedict commissioned a group of cardinals who were not in the conclave to investigate those charges. It has been reported that they produced a document of more than 300 pages. Pope Francis has likely read that report and its recommendations.

Related to this is the role of the Vatican Bank. Its proper name is the Institute for the Works of Religion, and it controls and manages assets estimated at $6 billion or more. This isn’t the Vatican’s money, though. It belongs to dioceses, religious orders and other Catholic organizations.

In recent years, there have been accusations of scandals at the bank. It became so serious that, in January, the Deutsche Bank Italy suspended all bank card payments in the Vatican, citing its failure to implement anti-money laundering legislation. People had to pay cash at the Vatican museums. That lasted until the Vatican worked out an agreement with the Swiss firm Aduno SA.

Pope Francis told journalists, “How I would like a poor Church for the poor.” It will be interesting to see what he does about the Vatican Bank.

This does not mean that the Vatican is wealthy. It has an annual operating budget under $300 million. As reporter John Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter has pointed out, “Harvard University, arguably the Vatican of elite secular opinion, has a budget of $3.7 billion, meaning it’s 10 times greater.”

Then there’s the clergy sex-abuse scandal that simply won’t go away. Pope Emeritus Benedict was the first high official in the Vatican, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger serving as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to realize the seriousness of this problem, and he tried to make the changes begun in the United States applicable worldwide. But there seem to have been some in the Roman Curia who thwarted those attempts.

Prior to the conclave, during the meetings of the College of Cardinals, all of these challenges were discussed. Then the cardinals eligible to vote elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis.

They obviously were convinced that he was the right man to meet those challenges.

—John F. Fink

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